INDIANAPOLIS – There was a day not that long ago in the infancy of Chris Holtmann's coaching career where he his paycheck was miniscule, but his dreams of leading a program enormous.
A young coach can let his mind wander on long road trips to places such as Thomas More, Bethany, Spring Arbor and the like. That is when he's not concentrating on actually driving the team van.
Holtmann wasn't unlike any other budding college coach. He understood that nothing would be handed to him, and only hard work, time, being inquisitive, harder work, and more time, would eventually give him a chance – not an assurance – but a chance, to fulfill his dream of being a head coach at the college level.
So what did Holtmann do after not only fulfilling that dream by becoming the head coach at Gardner-Webb, but doing so very successfully? He walked away.
Holtmann had the “most talented team” of his four-year tenure at Gardner-Webb returning this season, yet last July he left the Runnin' Bulldogs to accept a position as an assistant with Butler.
“I wouldn't have made this move for just any high-major program,” Holtmann said. “Butler was just too good of an opportunity for me to pass up.”
That doesn't mean that it was easy.
Holtmann and his new group of Bulldogs (11-8, 1-6 Big East) will host St. John's (11-8, 1-5) Saturday at 4 p.m. (Fox Sports Network).
On an annual basis, fans watch their favorite head coach talk about how difficult it is to leave (fill in the blank) program for another. He'll talk about how emotional it is, all the while that the ink on his new – and much more beneficial – contract is drying.
Holtmann couldn't talk about leaving Gardner-Webb, at least not at first.
“It was one of the hardest weeks of my life,” Holtmann said earnestly. “People can exaggerate that, but when I went and spoke with the team, I walked into the locker room and it took – somebody timed it – something like 7 ½ minutes to get a word out.”
And that pain stretched to even including his wife, Lori.
“I don't know if my wife has completely been on board with any of the moves that I've made,” Holtmann laughed.
But turning serious, he explained that “What my wife does a good job of is, she goes to a place and really invests in that place. When I tell you that those players, and that staff, was part of our family…”
The Holtmann house, which was the couple's (along with daughter Nora Jane) “dream house,” was the place to be after a Runnin' Bulldog victory. And there were lots of wins to celebrate. Gardner-Webb won 21 games in his third season after climbing from 11 and 12 during his first two years.
Holtmann didn't skip out on Gardner-Webb because of any friction with the administration, any slight he felt toward the basketball program, or any lack of support he felt professionally. The university extended his contract every year that he was with the school (he had five years remaining on the deal when he resigned) and Holtmann called working at Gardner-Webb “an unbelievable situation.”
“I had a great athletic director,” Holtmann said, “a great president, and they believed in me.”
But Holtmann believed in Brandon Miller. And when the stunning turn of events unfolded at 46th and Sunset Ave. this summer, Holtmann “prayed a lot” and felt at peace with his decision.
“I wouldn't have left my situation if I wasn't going to work for a very good, competent, hard-working coach that I knew was going to be successful. And it wasn't with a program that had achieved some of the things that Butler had achieved.”
The biggest of those “achievements” was the fact that Butler joined the Big East Conference just two weeks prior to Holtmann signing on with the program.
Holtmann stated that despite the consecutive trips to the National Championship game, and a hypothetical opportunity to work for former Butler coach Brad Stevens, he wasn't walking away from Gardner-Webb to be an assistant Horizon League or Atlantic 10.
“No, no,” Holtmann interrupted the question. “I mean Brad (Stevens) is Brad, but that wouldn't have happened.”
Ironically, the success of the Runnin' Bulldogs ultimately cost them their coach, but not in the typical manner. Holtmann felt comfortable leaving Gardner-Webb because of the state of the program, not despite it. If the Runnin' Bulldogs hadn't gone on a late-season tear last winter and achieved what it had (the first post-season in program history), Holtmann wouldn't have felt comfortable making the career move.
“Now listen, (Gardner-Webb) is a difficult job,” Holtmann said. “Everybody would say that it is a difficult job in a lot of ways, but it's a special place. It will always be a special place to me.
“I believe that you can win there. We did it. To leave there and feel like 'These people really appreciated what we did and worked so hard to build,' that gave me a release (emotionally). It didn't make it any easier, but it gave me a release to pursue what I felt like was a great opportunity.”